The Trouble With Muses

A fellow author shared an in-depth look at her writing process on her blog. It was so methodical and logical. I was overwhelmed with envy. All of you writers who can plot and outline and plan—you don’t know how lucky you are. I’ve tried to do those things, but I’m always thwarted by my muse.

My muse doesn’t care for plotting and all that boring stuff. She prefers to follow her instincts. Because of the hundreds of books I/she has read over the years, my muse figures she knows how stories work and can create them without all that plotting crap.

Most of the time, I can’t really argue with her. I’ve published sixteen books and finished drafts of several more. So obviously, her way works…sort of. But there are times I get frustrated with her and can’t help wondering: If my writing process was more organized and structured, would I not be only more productive, but also more successful?

Because not only am I at the mercy of my muse in terms of the creative process, but also when it comes to what book I write at any given time. If not for her, I’m certain it would be easier for me to write the books that would advance my career. Instead of bouncing around from sub-genre to sub-genre, I could keep going in the same one, or write the books in a series one after another instead of having gaps of years between them.

Even though she’s made me what I am as a writer, my muse can be aggravatingly arrogant. Not to mention capricious, moody and stubborn. And she’s getting worse as she gets older. It used to be a lot easier to control her. In the past I sometimes insisted she get to work on a certain story. Forced her to help me write books that weren’t really what she was interested in at the time. Now, granted, those were not my most successful or best-reviewed books. But at least I had the illusion of being disciplined and responsible in terms of my career. Now if I tried to make her work on a book she had no interest in she would just laugh at me, or go off and sulk.

And the truth is, without her, I can’t create. I can write blog posts and letters and even blurbs. But I can’t write fiction. No short stories or novels. For that I need her. And she knows that. Knows I’m at her mercy and without her, I’m someone who’s literate and can put words together but who lacks the creative spark to tell stories and make them come to life.

My muse doesn’t ever seem to get older or mature. She remains a stubborn, bratty child. Because that’s what she is, my childish self. Before I grew up and learned to pay attention in school and do what I was told. She is the daydreaming, fanciful child inside me. The one who spent hours in imaginary play, alone, outside in the Midwestern countryside, spinning stories in my head and sometimes telling them to myself out loud, with no one to listen but the birds and butterflies and caterpillars and the flowers and the trees.

I grow older, and hopefully, wiser. But my muse doesn’t. She remains frozen in time. With all the gifts of her childish outlook and all the flaws. I can’t tame her or make her mind me. I’ve learned not to try. And so I coax and nudge. I coddle and indulge her. Anything to keep her by my side. Without her, there’s no magic. No creativity. I’m just a boring, ordinary…adult.

The Good of the Whole

I’ve been gardening for about ten years. In the beginning I started with easy plants, varieties that thrive in the Rocky Mountain climate without much effort. But I wanted more. So, I kept adding things. Species that are more difficult to grow, but better fulfill my vision for my garden. Every year there is some color or height of plant my garden seems to need.

But I only have so much space and my garden is getting terribly crowded. Something has to come out before I add anything more. It’s a tough decision. How do you uproot a plant that is lovely and thriving to replace it with something else? It’s seems so harsh.

2016_Gillgannon_gardenWhat will it be? Which plant gets to live and which plant gets weeded out? I consider color. I love purple, but a good share of my garden blooms in that hue: dame’s rocket and columbines, hardy geraniums and delphiniums. With all that purple, the lavender haze of cat mint and sage seem like too much. These are some of the first perennials I planted and they’ve gotten huge, three and four feet wide. I prop them up with low fencing, trying to keep them under control. But something has to give.

I make my decision. It will be the sage. I will dig them out. Not to die, but to pass on to my friend who lives in the prairie/mountain landscape west of town. She has a whole hill to cover with tough, durable species.

Why the sage, and not the cat mint? Well, my cats, non-ironically, like the cat mint, and spend quite a bit of time rolling around on it early in the season. Later, the cat mint will attract bees by the dozen, until the plants come alive with swarming pollinators: honeybees, bumble bees and the occasional swallowtail butterfly.

Writing can be like gardening. (You were wondering when I would finally mention writing, weren’t you?) It’s difficult to pull up and discard a whole subplot. But sometimes the story gets too crowded, and you have to think long and hard about what drives the book. What is its essence? Are there scenes that seem repetitious? They may be tight and functional in and of themselves, but do they make the book better?

I write like I garden, randomly adding things, following a plot-line or story arc to see where it goes. But sometimes it gets too rambling, and I know I have to cut. I have to make my decision the way I do when gardening. What fulfills my vision? What can I do to make my garden/book better? What can I take out and not really miss?

Words, sentences, plotlines. They’re alive, blooming, full of possibilities. So hard to dig them up and discard them. But I have to remember the whole garden. The book. The story. That’s what other people see. What they read.

A bit wrenching, but it has to be done. There. Gone with a click of the mouse.

Already, the story flows better. Seems more cohesive and somehow more real. I’ve done the right thing and dug out those extra words that were getting in the way of the beautiful whole.

Mind, Body and Writing

A friend of mine who has endured cancer treatment and chronic pain issues for the last several years recently announced that she was taking a break from writing. Cognitive issues related to chemotherapy have made story structure and continuity, even word recall, a huge challenge for her. But even more than that, I think she is tired of the struggle to cope, to be productive and meet deadlines. And maybe she’s just tired, period.

Because writing does take a certain physical stamina. It doesn’t seem like it should. After all, you sit while you’re doing it. Some people even recline in bed as they write on a laptop. I’m pretty sure most non-writers look at writing as very non-demanding physically. I’ll never forget when Stephen King was injured in that freak car accident and one of the patrons at the library where I work said something to the effect of “Well, maybe now he’ll be forced to do nothing but write and will get his books finished faster.”

Not only did the remark seem incredibly callous, as if King being injured was a positive thing, but it also seemed very stupid. Someone injured and in pain is not going to be a productive writer. And indeed, that experience took a terrible toll on King and his creativity for a number of years, as he has documented in various autobiographical pieces.

Writing can be an escape and a rejuvenating experience. But it takes energy, and energy comes from a healthy body. Many successful writers when interviewed will talk about the importance of physical exercise in their daily routine. They know that keeping the body in shape and moving helps keep the words and story ideas flowing. And recent studies have shown that physical exercise helps stave off dementia and cognitive decline as we age.

My friend needs time to heal, to learn ways of coping with the damage that chemotherapy and chronic pain have wrought on her body and her spirit. We speak of “filling the well”—through life experiences, travel, contact with other people, through living a full and interesting life. But sometimes “filling the well” involves resting. Simply being, rather than always doing.

I tend to be rather driven, especially in regards to writing. I set goals for myself and get frustrated when I don’t meet them. I was very productive the first part of this year, but then life intervened. Both good and bad things have sucked up my time and reduced my writing pace to a crawl. My lack of productivity has gnawed at me and increased my stress. And then I met with my friend and she discussed her decision, and I realized that I need to remember to nurture and care for myself physically if I want to have the energy and spark to be a productive writer.

When I started out, I saw writing as an escape from stress and a source of positive energy. But as I’ve gotten older I realize that writing requires physical energy even as it produces positive mental energy. Which means it’s important to do things that help me increase my physical vitality. Exercise is one of those. But more subtly, taking it easy can also help. There are activities I used to see as wasting time or taking me away from writing: Puttering in my garden, reading the newspaper or a magazine. Having sociological discussions with my daughter. Hanging out on the patio and listening to music with my husband.

I used to feel guilty for doing those things, but I’ve begun to understand that they help “fill the well” in an important way. Those activities relax me and reduce my stress, which rejuvenates me physically so I have the energy to write.

Your Fantasy, Or Mine

Some of my friends talked me into entering my latest book in the RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s annual contest. One of the requirements for entering is you have to judge seven books. And since they don’t want you to judge the category you’re entered in, the books they send are a random mix of other sub-genres. The entries I received were all over the place: I had a short historical romance (the same genre as I write although with fewer words), two short contemporary romances, two contemporary novellas, a romantic suspense and an M/M romance (love story about two guys).

You might think the M/M romance would be the hardest for me to evaluate, because it’s a genre I don’t read and also completely outside my own experience. But actually, the only trouble I had with the M/M romance was deciding if it really was a love story or a mainstream, coming-of-age novel that featured a romance. (One of the RITA eligibility requirements is that the book has to have a romance as its main focus.)

The books I really struggled with were the short contemporaries. At first reading, they seemed hopelessly clichéd. For one thing, in both books the heroes were billionaires, and in a position to provide the heroine with a life of total ease and comfort. Right. And we know how often that happens in real life. And there were other well-used tropes: a secret baby, a mix-up between twins, and a hero who is a shallow playboy until he meets the one woman, the heroine, he can’t live without.

I sighed as I started the first short contemporary. Then I began to get depressed. Both of these books were published by the biggest romance publishers out there, and had worldwide distribution. I’m sure the authors have made several times as much money on their books as I made on my romance published by a small press. But that wasn’t really what discouraged me. What got to me was the realization that these books were much more successful than mine because of the fantasy they presented. No matter how trite and ridiculous it seems to me, that fantasy is clearly shared by enormous numbers of readers. These books were successful because they gave those readers what they wanted, and what those thousands of readers wanted was a fantasy that had no meaning for me.

This realization put me in a tailspin. I began to wonder if there was any point to my continuing to write romances. For a couple of days, I considered changing genres. But the vast majority of the story ideas that come to me are romances, and they’re what I enjoy writing. They are also the only genre in which I’ve ever had any real success. So it seems stupid to stop writing romance now.

I shook off the mood of gloom and defeat and finished reading the two contemporary romances. And one of them, I have to say I actually enjoyed. It seemed silly in places and some of the plot twists made me roll my eyes, and the author changed viewpoint so much that any editor I’ve ever had would have thrown up their hands in despair. But overall it was a fun read. A bite of cotton candy compared to the dark, gritty mysteries that make up a large portion of my reading fare.

The book was gone from my mind nearly as soon as I finished it. But while I was reading, I have to admit I experienced a pleasant escape from real life. I can almost understand why books like this are so popular. Because it is fun to completely forget reality for a time and pretend. Fantasies are wonderful things that can get us through our often unlovely, sometimes miserable lives.

I still struggle with the fact that my preferred romantic fantasy is a lot different than most readers. But I remind myself that there are some people who share my vision. Who want a love story where the characters are a little more flawed and realistic and face real danger and conflict. Over the years, I’ve sold quite a few books and some have been nominated for awards. I’ve received fan mail and interacted with a number of readers who thoroughly enjoyed my books. Not many, maybe. Not enough to make this a career that will pay my bills. But enough to make it worthwhile for me to keep writing. Because although the number of readers may be small, as a writer, I’m providing an enjoyable escape for more people than simply myself.

On a final note, one of the novellas was exceptional, and the historical romance was pretty good, too. And I learned a lot, not only about romance and romance readers, but about myself.

The Muddle

One of my favorite writing quotes is, “Every book has a beginning, an end and a muddle.” It’s been true of every one of my books. The first few chapters flow. My characters are vivid and alive. There’s conflict and motivation galore. I can see all the plot points lining up. Everything is moving along nicely. And then I descend into quicksand and my story starts to flounder and flail and slowly sink.

My plot derails. My characters’ motivation stops making sense or feeling right. I can’t figure out the next scene. Or the one after that. My characters refuse to say their lines. Seemingly because they don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter if I know how the book is going to end. Or even if I'm clear on what will happen in the last third of the book. I’m stranded in the no-man’s land of the middle.

I thought it would be different this time. After all, I’m not writing this book from scratch. I’m rewriting a story for which I have two complete manuscripts and a detailed synopsis for a third version. In theory, I’ve already made it through the “muddle” of this story—twice. But it doesn’t seem to matter. I get stuck. Horribly, wretchedly stuck. I write paragraphs and delete them. I start in a different spot and write some more. And delete that, too. I get discouraged. Maybe I should shelve this project for now. Write on something else for awhile. But superstitious dread won’t let me. The fear that if I quit now, I’ll never get unstuck and figure out the story. I’ll never get past the middle and finish the book.

So, I do what I’ve always done. I think about the story. At night, before I go to bed. In the morning when I wake up. During the day when I’m doing things that don’t require much focus. I contemplate jumping ahead and writing a scene later on. But I’m not sure that will work. If I don’t know where the story goes next, how will I tie everything together and have it make sense?

This time it is a “snowday” from work that rescues me. I finally have a chunk of hours when a dozen other tasks aren’t insisting on my attention. I do what a lot of experts advise: put my butt in the chair and stay there, working at it until the immovable plot starts to move. Once it does, it is like a logjam getting unfree. Everything flows. Clear river ahead.

I think that taking the time to work through the tangle in one sitting is part of the secret. And thinking about the story and letting it foam and fester in your sub-conscious for a few days also helps. But I still don’t understand the actual process that brought about the breakthrough. I can’t remember any of the details. It’s like giving birth; your mind blocks it out. Not because the process is so painful (Not quite !), but because when it’s happening, you’re so focused that there are no circuits in your brain available to imprint the memory.

Which is a darn shame. I’d really like to remember my thought process at the time, the exact steps I took to free my story from the dreaded muddle. Because I know I’m going to have to do it again…and again.

Rethinking Book Promotion…Again

Recently, the woman who was promoting my books through social media announced she is quitting the “virtual assistant” business. She just can’t make a go of it anymore. And no wonder. The results I get from her promotional efforts have dwindled each month, and I’m sure other authors who use her services have seen the same trend. We can no longer justify paying for promotion that doesn’t increase our sales, which means our promoter is out of a job.

I signed up for her virtual assistant services nearly a year ago, as a means of reducing my guilt over my own pathetic promotional efforts. In our arrangement, I would pick a couple of my books each month, and she would tweet about them and feature them in her e-newsletter. At first, I could see results. My sales for the books featured would increase. I also credit her for helping my most recently published book hover in the top 50 list in its sub-genre for several weeks last fall. But now, unless I do a 99 cent sale (which reduces my income on the books to a depressing level), I can’t see a difference between the books she’s promoting and sales of my other titles.

I’ve tried several other promotional services. I’ve spent relatively small amounts: $40 here, $20 there, and once, $99 for a promotion that was supposed to get me twenty-five reviews. (I ended up with about fifteen.) Most of the services were busts. Recently, I paid a company $40 to feature my 99 cent book in their newsletter for a week, and had zero sales of the book for the week.

Other authors I know are becoming similarly frustrated. Oh, there are promotions that work, like Bookbub, but they cost hundreds of dollars and they are very picky about the books they feature, especially those from indie-authors. Also, you have to make the featured book free or 99 cents, which means unless you sell thousands and thousands of books, and/or you have several books out and the promotion significantly increases sales of your other titles, it isn’t possible to earn back what you spent.

The most troubling aspect of recent developments is that a year ago a lot of these promotional tools/techniques worked. When I first indie-published my backlist four years ago, there were proven ways to promote your book and increase sales. Every year since then, fewer and fewer things seem to succeed. The industry and the promotional dynamics keep changing, always in a negative way.

In her letter to her clients, my virtual assistant pointed out that part of the problem, besides there being so many books available, is that there are now so many competing companies doing the same thing. Book promotion has become a whole industry in itself, attracting large numbers of social media savvy people looking for a way to make a living or to at least supplement their income.

Not every author is in my situation. Several authors I know have cracked bestseller lists and done very well. And done it without spending a fortune either. But in most cases, they write series and have been slowly building up their following to get to that “break-out” book. And/or they write in a genre that is particularly popular right now.

Those are the only proven things that seem to help sales:  writing a series and writing in a popular sub-genre. There is one other secret, and that is having a new book out every few months, the more often the better. Neither of my series have really caught on, and I refuse to write books in a particular genre simply because it’s popular. (My muse would mutiny, and I’d never get anything done.) So all I can do is keep plugging away and writing steadily, hoping that if I keep publishing I will eventually gain ground. Maybe if I completely give up dabbling in promotion, the time and energy I save will help me write a little faster and gets books out more often. It’s worth a shot.

The Story In My Head

There’s a recent TV commercial that shows people listening to audiobooks, and as they listen, the story comes to life around them. A woman on the beach listens to a science fiction story and her surroundings alter into an inter-planetary landscape. A young man caught up in a historical novel looks up to see his breakfast table peopled with characters in eighteenth-century garb. It’s a great commercial, and reminds me vividly of how the stories I’m writing take over my life. Or at least, they used to.

For years, I carried the world of whatever book I was working on around in my head. While I did laundry or the dishes, I would find myself transported to a longhouse in ninth century Norway or a castle in eleventh century Wales. As I checked out books for patrons in my job at the library, the young mother with toddlers would transform into my heroine in a medieval gown. Fetching music CD’s for a young man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, I envisioned my hero in chain mail and tattered surcote.

I would think about my story before going to sleep at night, when I woke up in the morning and those times during the day when routine tasks allowed my mind to wander. My body might be functioning in the everyday world, but my mind was elsewhere, consumed by the struggles and passions of my characters.

Much of my writing time was in the morning before work. Often in the middle of a scene, I would realize I had to quit or I would be late. I would get up from my computer in a trance-like state, grab my coat, drive to work, greet my coworkers and take my place at the circulation desk. Then, and only then, would I leave my story completely behind and re-enter the reality of my life.

For so long, having a story alive in my head was a constant. Then, a few years ago, it left me. I no longer walked around seeing historical landscapes or struggled with my characters’ dilemmas during the work day. Unless I was at the computer and actively writing fiction, I seldom thought about my books. Writing and my stories became a separate part of my life.

The change may have come about because I was so discouraged about my career. So many editors and agents had failed to engage with my characters and come to love them, it started to feel like they were real only to me. I decided I was writing mainly for myself. As a result, my stories became less compelling and consuming. My characters lost their flesh and blood power and grew transparent and frail and fictional.

Another reason for the change might be that my head became filled with other creative urges. My mind’s-eye saw plans for my garden, or remodeling ideas for my house. I imagined scenery from the trips I was planning, rather than the landscapes of the stories I was writing. Now that I had the time and money to indulge my longing for beauty and adventure in the real world, I started to rely it, rather on the world in my head, which had been my companion since childhood.

Taking a year off from writing fiction to indie-publish several books didn’t help either. I spend my creative energy thinking up cover images and blurbs, rather than planning novels. When I finally got back to writing fiction, it was much more difficult. The books didn’t follow me around, demanding my attention. I could shut them away, limiting the power of my stories to affect me to the small amount of time I was actually writing. Because I wasn’t spending as much time with them, solving my characters’ problems took a lot longer. I should have been able to write faster, since I was more experienced and had more free time to write, but it was taking longer and longer for me to finish a book.

But something happened over this past year. I once again started to feel that real life wasn’t enough. My garden lies dormant half the year. The time between trips stretches into months. There are no compelling home improvement projects to obsess over. What’s a girl to do? Well, write, of course. And not just write, but let the story take over my life.

It’s there waiting for me when I wake up. Niggling in my consciousness during the day. Blooming into life as I try to fall asleep. The story in my head is back. I’m so glad.

Book Revision, The Extreme Version

This week is the beginning of a new year. And for me, a new book. Except it’s not really a new book. I’m going to re-write a historical romance I wrote, and which was published, nearly fifteen years ago.

I’ve revised and re-released most of my backlist, so this isn’t a new experience for me. Except in this case, revising this book isn’t a matter of tightening and improving my prose and tweaking the story. This time I’m going start from the beginning and re-write the book the way it was meant to be written.

The reason I didn’t write it that way the first time was because this was a book I was coerced into writing by my publisher. They were starting a new erotic romance line, and since my books were fairly steamy, they thought I would be a good fit. My editor found a proposal I’d written for her predecessor (I was on my third editor by then) and suggested I write the story as an erotic romance. I told them no, that even though I wrote hot love scenes, I didn’t put sex in my books just for the sake of writing sex. In fact, I told them no three times. But in the end I gave in. Not for the money, or to revive my flagging career, but because they said if I wrote this book, they’d buy the third book in my Dragon of the Island series. I really wanted to see that book-of-the-heart published, so I agreed to write the other one.

They’d sent me several books to read, to give me an idea of what they had in mind And they came up with an underlying theme for the story and a title. I thought I knew what they wanted, and I did my best to give it to them. The process was intense and agonizing. Normally my stories just happen and I let the characters do what they want. I may have to push them in a certain direction to keep the plot from sagging, or rein them in here and there to give the story coherence, but I don’t force them to follow a certain formula, like having sex every X number of pages. But with this book, I had to do that. And to keep the sexual tension going, I not only had to force them to have sex, I had to keep them in conflict for most of the book. (The title they gave the book was No Surrender.)

The result was a disaster. I don’t know if my editor hated the book, but her boss, the head of the romance line, did. She disliked it so much she pulled it out of the erotic line and published it as a regular historical romance. Which meant it shocked and upset quite a few readers who bought it expecting an R-rated romance and who got an X-rated one. Other readers were turned off by the relentless conflict between the hero and heroine. Despite its flaws, the book actually sold fairly decently, proving it’s true that “sex sells”.

But it was demoralizing experience for me. It shook my confidence in my writing and in my judgment. It tainted, and eventually ruined, my relationship with my agent, who had strongly encouraged me to write the book. I felt as if I’d sold my soul for nothing. Even having the third book in my series published didn’t help. The Dragon Prince sold poorly and ended up being the last book I sold to my publisher. In fact, it would be another ten years before I contracted a book with any publisher.

But one good thing was that I used a pseudonym, so in some ways, it’s like No Surrender never happened. I’m free to start over and write the story the way I originally conceived it. I can take my characters and set them free. At the same time, I don’t have to develop the setting and the historical details and all the things that make up the world of the book. The framework is already there. It should be fun. And even if it’s harder than I expect to be, it will be wonderfully satisfying. My characters get to have their romance, as it was intended. And I get to write the story I envisioned so many years ago.

A Character By Any Other Name…

Usually, the names of my characters simply come to me, along with their physical characteristics. I always know how they look, because long before I have any idea of the plot, I visualize at least one scene with the main characters. It may be the first scene, or it may one that happens later in the book, but that initial image is what sets up the whole story. I know if my characters are tall or petite, or if it’s the hero, if he is very muscular and tall or merely average for a studly hero. I know their eye and hair color, and if their hair is wavy or straight. They appear in my mind as clear as a photograph.

Based on their physical characteristics and the character’s general personality, which I usually have a glimpse of from that initial scene, the character’s name will generally pop into head. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more of a challenge. Since I'm an impatient writer, who wants to immediately jump in and start writing, I don’t wait until I find the perfect name. I come up with a temporary name and use that until I find something better. As a result, the heroine in my current WIP has had three different names. Thank heavens for the “search and replace” feature!

To find potential names, a lot of authors use baby-name books or online sites. But for historical novels, that only works up to a point. When you need a name that fits a specific time and place, you have to do more intensive research. I often use The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. When that fails me, I start delving into historical records. But finding a name that is historically accurate can involve other issues. A lot of traditional names from the more archaic eras are odd-sounding. Eneuawg and Goleuddydd are historical Welsh names, but I would probably never use them for a character. The same with the Saxon names Ulfcetel and Aelfgyth. Readers want to have some sense of how to pronounce the characters’ names. If you use too many unusual names, readers will get confused and become overwhelmed with keeping track of who is who. They might even stop reading altogether.

For my books set in contemporary times, it’s easier, although sometimes there are too many choices. Because of the time travel sub-plot, my modern heroine needed to have a name beginning with “M”. Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds of names that fit that criterion. It you narrow it down to names that are popular currently, it gets a bit easier. Then it’s a matter of finding one that sounds right, that intuitively fits that character.

I've written a couple of fantasy novels, and in them I used mostly made-up names. I combined real words from real languages for some names and for others, altered real but obscure names to create new ones. It's interesting how some sounds we associate with females and others with males. And how some names sound right for a hero and others are a better fit for a villain.

The process really can't be explained. We all tend to associate specific characteristics with certain names. Often our feelings about a name are based on someone we knew with that name. Or it may be the way the name sounds or some other connection. I remember when my son was trying to figure out a name for his new kitten. She is an unusual-looking cat, what I call a pastel tortoiseshell, with gray, gold and cream all swirled together. I wanted to name her Paisley, but my son immediately rejected the name. It seems he knew a girl in preschool named Paisley and he didn’t like her. For the record, he ended up naming the cat Trainwreck. A tough-sounding name that appealed to him, a guy in his late teens, and which the cat lived up to, becoming the terror of the local mouse, rabbit and, alas, bird population when she came to live with us when my son went off to college. (Trainwreck now lives happily with my son and his wife, who was his girlfriend when they first got the kitten, in their tiny house in San Diego.)

How you feel about a character’s name is hugely important. In the cases where I’ve struggled with a character’s name and/or used several different ones, I also tended to struggle with their personality and their role in the book. It’s almost as if the character doesn’t become clear to me and truly come alive until I find the right name for them. A character who has the “right” name from the beginning is usually easy to write. Their personality, motivation and conflicts are immediately clear to me.

But what if you find the perfect name for your character and then realize another character’s name starts with the same letter? In that case, I usually change the name of the character who is less important to the story. With two names starting with the same letter, it’s too easy for the reader to get confused. But finding a new name can be agonizing. Some characters, even secondary ones, are simply that name, and creatively, it’s difficult to find an alternative that feels right.

Maybe I’m the only author to whom character names matter so much. But I don’t think so. I was recently talking to a writer friend who was struggling, and part of the reason was because she kept getting the heroine’s name in her current WIP mixed up with the heroine’s name in the book she was editing. Until she got the right name clear in her mind, she had difficulty moving forward in the book.

The only thing harder than naming your characters is finding a pseudonym. But that’s an issue for another blog post!

 

Fate and the Crooked Pathway

I recently had a dream about the boss who fired me. I remember being pleased to see him (in real life he’s been dead for nearly ten years) and wanting to thank him for firing me. Because it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. If he hadn’t fired me and I hadn’t struggled to find a job and ended up staying home with my toddler children, I might not have started writing. Bored and frustrated, I channeled my angst into poetry and then a novel. Although I only wrote a few chapters of the novel, a family saga, before I realized I was way over my head.

If I hadn’t been fired and finally been forced to take a job working at a bank where I sat all day, the discs in my lower back might not have given out, resulting in back surgery. Because when I signed the paperwork for the surgery and got to the part where it said I could potentially die, I realized I couldn’t die. Not only because I had two small children, but because I hadn’t written a book yet.

If I hadn’t been fired and been forced take the bank job I hated, I might never have considered applying for a position at the local public library. It wasn’t a career job, and it didn’t pay very well. But because of what I’d gone through, I applied for the job and got it. And it was working at the library where I discovered the genre of historical romance and realized this was a kind of book that I could write.

Being fired, which was devastating at the time, set all the steps in motion for me to become a writer, and also for me to get published. Because it was the support and encouragement of my co-workers at the library that made it possible for me to see myself as a writer and to take the necessary steps, like joining RMFW, which gave me the connections to sell that first book.

Since then, my career has been very up and down, with a lot of downs. But on my journey, when things have been very grim, I’ve reminded myself, that a lot of the time, bad things happen for a reason. When doors slam shut in your face, it means you’re supposed to backtrack and go a different direction. And even then you may still find you’re not going the right way. You may have to alter your path several times before you find the right one. The one that will lead you to where you need to go. Although where you need to go might not be the place you expected.

My philosophical outlook may have no meaning beyond being my personal coping mechanism. A way for me to see my checkered career path in a positive light. But even if that’s all it offers, it still has value. By allowing me to remain positive, it’s given me the strength to fight through the tough times and keep writing. And since writing is a big part of my personal happiness, that’s definitely a good thing.